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JEZ LOWE - The Ballad Beyond

JEZ LOWE - The Ballad Beyond
Tantobie Records TTRCD113

Welcome back, Jez. The Ballad Beyond is the first album of new songs by he of the stripy tops since Wotcheor in 2010. Not that he’s been resting up. Many of the songs were first written for BBC Radio 2’s The Radio Ballads, though some have been developed further and all have been recorded afresh. Already, Jez has contributed 60 songs to this ongoing project since 2006. Yes, any constipated songsmiths out there, that’s 60. His preference for narrative, his commitment to telling the stories of ordinary people and, above all, his consistency, make him an ideal contributor. Jez does sad songs, lyrical songs and funny songs, but I’ve yet to hear him do a bad song in a 35-year career.

Some of the 15 songs on this 59-minute album match anything in his repertoire. The Lazarus Dance is a dream song where the dear departed get together for a hoolie. Invitees include Django Reinhardt and Peter Bellamy. The Morpeth Olympics, commissioned by the Morpeth Gathering Music Festival, showcases Jez’s gift for rhyme. Austerity Alphabet is a fierce, concise summary of hard times. Candles is a spare, haunting song about the death of a childhood friend. Names is a lovely addition to the songs being written to commemorate the Great War, inspired by a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery.

There is plenty of variety in the instrumentation, from just Jez on guitar or cittern, through able assistance from the current Bad Pennies (Andy May on pipes, accordion and piano; Kate Bramley on fiddle and vocals; and David De La Haye on electric bass guitar) to augmentation by a cohort of special guests including Rod Clements on slide guitar, Maggie Holland on banjo and Laura Bell on sax. There are touches of Americana, notably with Rod’s contributions on Tether’s End and Jessie Owen’s Shoes, but not enough to startle the pit ponies. I’ve always admired the way that Jez has respected his roots without being strangled by them.

Another great song ends the album. Judy Dinning, a fine singer and a Bad Penny for many years, died much too young in October 2013. Lass Of Hexhamshire, with Northumbrian pipes from Andy and lyrics adapted from the traditional song, is a beautifully judged tribute to her. One of Jez’s lines: Did you ever hear her voice? It could torch a song with fire.

I think this is one of Jez’s best albums since Bede Weeps in 1993 which recorded the human cost of damage done to the North East by the decline of its heavy industry. 1993? Give over! The years go by and our best songwriter in the folk tradition is still not quite getting all his dues.

Tony Hendry

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This album was reviewed in Issue 106 of The Living Tradition magazine.